October 20 - November 7 2013 / Morocco/ West Sahara/ Cape Verde: Skimming the Surface
In Which We See Many Hard-Working People and Many Beautiful Places
All packed, tense with waiting—will the alarm go off at the right time? Will the cab we called last night really come? Will this string of four flights really happen as it is supposed to? And therefore little sleep on Saturday night.
In the chilly 5:30 am, yes, the cab came, and we got Dunkin Donuts coffee at the airport, and yes, the flight came too and left, and we on it. The water around Cape Cod blazed with light, and brilliant fingers of light filled the multiple inlets of Nantucket Island, and then down there was the Sandy-battered coast of the New York barrier islands, and then there we were at JFK and Leg 1 was accomplished. No worries over bags, either, since we’d long ago decided that since we had such a complicated route to take, with three airlines and four legs, it was doubtful that bags would make it along with us, and so we have only carry-on, and can keep track of it.
At JFK, we float in the stimulating ocean of languages in the pleasant terminal. It reminds me that this is New York, the receiving place for all the world’s people. We have nearly the whole day to wait. We settle with our books. Everybody’s on their machines. A family, the parents deeply absorbed in their phones, his orange, hers red. The kids, the little boy with big black earphones and tablet, his sister with pink of same. The swirl of languages and skin tones reassures me that I am in my home place, a place I know how to be in (see What Is A Place). I know how to do this.
We fly across the ocean, and I know how to do this, too. It is only about six hours, around the time it would have taken to go to the West Coast. It’s Aer Lingus, and curling accents of Irish English are comforting to hear. The airport at Dublin is sleek and convenient, with a well-planned waiting area for those of us also there in what passes for morning (actually it is only about 11 pm our time, but we were told on the plane that it was morning). I get a coffee, and the woman waiting on me was eastern European. The signs round about are in English and Gaelic, and the cabin crew made announcements in both. Like Hawaii, I think, a new appreciation for the native language.
And that was Leg 2. And, improbably, my 99th country; yes, according to the Century Club rules, it counts.
Now it’s still Aer Lingus, this time to Madrid: Leg 3.
Note to self: Never, ever pass through the Madrid Airport again. We spent about an hour wandering through the maze of two buildings, separated by about 15 miles. Lugging our heavy bags. Signage disappeared along the way. Trains inexplicably dumped all passengers out. Raked flat escalator-like affairs strained my baggage-pulling arm in its socket. The Spanish seemed rude and unkind. Elevators had no instructions about what was where, or how to get there.
Now flying Iberia over the Spanish landscape to Casablanca, for Leg 4. And in the flight the ineffable thrill of travel returns in an emotional rush. The elegant brown landscape below is perfectly visible. There are regular dotted patterns of deep green trees, and the thrilling glint of sun passing over river. John says they have suffered financial reverses in the last few years, and I see unbuilt housing tracts, with streets and circles laid out but no cars on them driving to houses that have not been built. In the circles there are fanciful figures in greenery: a huge horse, a whale amid the waves, a bird, a heart, a grid—and really only me, high above, to perceive and enjoy.
We fly over mountains, and there is a surprising number of roads, most of them on the ridges. I’d like to see this on the ground.
Somehow we are in the tiny Business Class, and are given a lovely small meal on real china with real wineglasses and nice wine.
Below, the coast of the Mediterranean appears, with small clusters of towns at its edge, and we fly over it, a few boats to be seen, and then here! Here is the coast of Africa, North Africa, and Morocco, my ONE HUNDREDTH COUNTRY. It’s a crazy-quilt of browns and tans and a few bits of green.
And the landing, and we are here. An easy trip through passport control especially since we have no luggage to claim, and then out into the Arrivals Hall, and Yes Indeed, there is the driver with our names, about which I have had so much anxiety for so long.
The long drive into Casablanca is hairy indeed. The driver makes his own lane, one hand ever so nonchalantly laid across the wheel. He stops and gets us a couple of bottles of water. The style is to come as close to other vehicles as you possibly can, front, back and sides. This is true on the airport highway and also in the city, where drivers just do as they please and assume the other drivers will give way. But since that is everybody, it’s kind of a scary thing. Women in long dresses and head scarves scamper across the roadways. I just pray that we will actually get to the hotel in one piece.
We do, they carry our wretched bags to the room, the guy explains everything, and then mercifully we are in our lovely room, with its view to the huge mosque and across to the medina. We shower, we sleep, we order room service.
I have genuine Moroccan couscous in Morocco!
We sleep again, 12 hours.
There is breakfast in the wildly ornate, darkly luxurious lounge, waited on hand and foot by about twenty people. John says he does not enjoy playing the rich man. I don’t mind it, once in a while. Very good manners combined with an air of great confidence will get you good treatment and make you feel comfortable. But it’s hard to maintain this for a long time. Hotel personnel seem equal numbers of men and women, but some of what appear to be those women in lesser jobs wear scarves. I wonder if they would be unable to get jobs in the front of the house. It’s all a complicated thing to try to understand.
Taking our life in our hands we venture outside to cross several streets, and into the Medina, the ancient city part of the modern city. A warren of commercial stalls sells everything. At first we are approached, but they take No Thank You very well, and we are left alone. Of course I don’t dare show any interest in anything, and besides we have not changed money so there would be no way to buy anything, and besides we have no extra space in our bags. Mostly it is women shopping, and a lot of darling little kids, arms linked, I guess either on their ways to or from school. Nobody really pays much attention to us. There are cats, thin ones, not-healthy ones, but some are just lean and strong. Trotley our cat would not last a day.
The stalls are in the first floors of the dwellings, which reach overhead in one or two additional stories. We have seen from our room how from every roof blooms an antennal dish. There is laundry hung out up there, and pots of flowers. Now and then a tiny passageway leads away from the main small snaking way, at right angles, and down it there is no commerce, but it is where people would go to get to their front doors.
We keep turning left, and eventually end up about where we started. It’s all easy, really, and not really threatening. After all, it is just people selling stuff and making their living. After the first few steps into the souk [market] area, nobody bothers us or tries to sell us anything. But I sure would have loved to look closely at some pretty things—dresses like the Moroccan one I had to leave at home, jewelry—but the concept of, “No thanks, just looking” is apparently strictly an American notion.
At one point two young guys on noisy motorbikes push their way through the narrow and crowded passage, taking no prisoners. An old guy right behind them frowns, gestures angrily at them. Just what I would have done, and that was reassuring. When you don’t know what the manners and thought-ways are in a place, you gotta keep your head down, but I was happy to see he was irritated, just as I was.
We got back safely to our hotel, and around noon we drag our bags the few blocks to the other hotel where our group will be picked up to go to the ship. Sidewalks are ruined in the best tradition of such places, and crossing streets is frightening, but indeed we do manage. I am so very relieved; this is the last piece of arrival that I have had to worry about, and have been worrying about, or envisioning, for so many months.
Lots of confusion, some familiar faces from past eclipse trips, some new; at the port, a long silly wait for our passports to be checked (why do they care so much if we are leaving the country?). Where was your passport issued? Well, we sent to Washington, D. C. to the National Passport office, see? the passport doesn’t say that on it any more. KaCHUNKkaCHUNKkaCHUNK!!! And we get to get on our little ship.
Stateroom’s fine, we are just glad to be shut of traveling around for a while and get our stuff stowed.
Unfortunately there is a “briefing” at the time of departure, so we do not get to see that fine moment. Later, after dinner, we go out just to have some air, and there is a flock of white gulls cruising alongside the ship, illuminated by the ship’s lights, keeping pace with us, about twenty of them, screeing softly as they troll for the food uplifted by the passage of the ship. In the distance, the orange lights of Casablanca, and the white-lit tower of the huge mosque, array like a necklace of light along the distant shoreline.
Well, only a few minutes after the pilot boat has left us at the breakwater, the ship begins to lurch and heave, quite largely, and the water stays that way all night, and very sadly I do not sleep for even one minute. The first two hours were the pleasure of relishing that we were finally here, and then I realized, oh, I have not fallen asleep yet, and that was that.
The day’s very long expedition was to Marrakech. Four buses of us drove a narrow road through beautiful empty flat country, now and then a donkey cart, a few women in their long dresses walking alongside the road, partially-completed concrete house or unknown structures, sometimes a well-walled compound, and many fences of impenetrable walls of prickly pear cactus. Our guide speaks continuously and at first I try to get what he is saying but then it is too much, I can’t look and listen at the same time, especially since what he is talking about—general stuff about the country—is not where my attention is. I would like to know more about this countryside. Who are these people, and how do they make a living?
Then come the low mountains, covered with orderly rows of olive trees. The sides of the road are lined with large trees whose lower trunks are painted white, supposedly against insects haha and I have seen this all over the world. Also, the guide says, so people can see the road at night. Kind of a shudder-making thought since we share the very narrow road with lots of lumbering trucks and some cars and motorbikes and walkers, and donkey carts. Man, it is a tough life being a donkey.
In Marrakech it is a whirlwind of sight-seeing, trotted briskly through various important touristic places—the outside of a mosque, a vizier’s palace, a building with many tiled graves, but no names or dates, since that is private, says the guide. There are cats everywhere. Because we are dragged along so quickly, I really do not get much of a chance to take it all in. The vizier’s palace certainly reminds me of the Taj Mahal, and I hear others of our number say the same.
All of the buildings in the city are painted a pleasant rose color. He tells us this is so that there is no glare from them in the desert light. Seems reasonable. There are men hanging about, and women walking briskly on errands.
Of course, he explained to us that women and men are equal. Uh huh. He also explains that the amount of veiling is up to the woman. I have seen everything from mini-skirts to total coverage. But in the fancy hotel we stayed at, would any of those front-of-the-house women have been veiled? So I think maybe in some ways it might be a sort of class thing. I could of course be quite wrong.
At each stop we must closely follow our guide. We have been outfitted with tiny earpieces and carry small transmitters so that he can just talk naturally and we can all hear him. I think we had something like them on a tour in Rome, maybe it was. In any case, it does help. But the kaleidoscope of people, objects, streets, cars, rickety sidewalks, vendors—I don’t allow myself the luxury of hanging back just a bit, since if I did I would surely be lost. At one point I am shoved—no other word for it—by some young chit of a teenage girl, and as she passes she looks back at me with an evil eye. I have never had such a thing happen. Later I think, could this be because she sees I am an American?? A truly unsettling thought.
Among the delights of the morning is the stop at my uncle’s shop or whatever it was, where we are given a)the talk about the rugs; b)mint tea; c) the sales pitch. Well, it is good to sit down. But I actually don’t like the rugs. They seem garish to me. There are a few wildly expensive small silk ones which are beautiful, but the other ones, the big ones, just seem garish. I don’t think anybody bought anything.
After lunch in a quiet oasis of a place, obviously there mostly for tourists, we end up at The Souk, which is famous for its performers and all of its warren of stalls. Again we are hurried through the maze and I have only time for a few quick pictures, and impressions. Four men play cards and a fifth watches. They throw them down expertly.
Poor little kittens everywhere, not long for this troubled world. Water sprinkled in front of your stall, to keep the dust down. Few cell phones.
Bags, pointy shoes, belts, jewelry, scarves, dresses, silvery pots, spices in piles. Some cages of doomed turtles. Fruits, or fruts, as the guide says. Absolutely gorgeous ceramics—tagine pots, plates, bowls, in a glorious waterfall of color. Sweets, completely covered with flies. Would anyone actually buy them, or have they been there on that plate for years? A few more interesting stores, one says Books, tantalizingly, but it is inside and of course we cannot stop.
We are herded past it all.
At the end is an herbal pharmaceutical place, also my brother-in-law’s or whatever, where we—or some us, not everyone stays for this--are given a slick talk about various oils and unguents which will solve everything from impotence to “spots” to snoring, and we get little samples rubbed on our skins. I am just glad to sit, for I am so very tired.
One woman buys three pots of something. I wish her well of it.
Finally we are first taken to the snake charmer, and then let to have a very short time by ourselves, around the large square thronged with tourists and sellers.
The snakes are two cobras, which at one point get into a discussion with each other and must be separated with a stick by their charmer, and several ominously thick, patterned, somnolent fellows, looking like very robust rattlesnakes (I later discover they are puff adders.). The cobras undulate and rise up, and they are a sight to see.
A fellow comes around with an obviously harmless snake, and drapes it around your neck and puts its head in your hand for your person to take a picture of. He keeps skipping me and finally I gesture to him. He comes over with the snake, than changes his mind and goes to put that one in its bag for a rest and brings out another, slightly thicker. He puts it around my neck and its head in my hand, and J takes a picture. I ask him what kind, and he says, water snake.
Then he more or less insists that it go around John’s neck, which I know he doesn’t like. I dutifully take a picture. John gives him a dollar and he explodes, not enough, not enough! I am furious. I tell John to give him another dollar (we’ve already put a dollar in the hat as it went round), and he does, and that’s not enough either. Well screw you, I think to myself as we walk off. Later I find other travelers’ accounts of the same bullying technique to extract money from the tourists. Too bad.
Anyhow, I loved the snake.
Then the long drive home, my hips and knees killing me in the small seat, and dinner (no drinkie ‘cause there’s no one at the bar), and to bed.
I slept sweetly. But this morning I woke with intestinal troubles, and so I have spent most of the day in bed, asleep and resting, while John has gone on the shore excursion.
Every time I woke up, in my nice dark room, I just went back to sleep. They called me twice, once first thing to ascertain that indeed I was staying on the ship and John was off, and once around 12:30 to see if I wanted lunch. Our cabin stewardess came in once, saw I was in bed, and hurried out, and then much later at the end of the day actually came in and spoke to me; seems she was worried about me. So I had to reassure her, no, I was fine and knew what to do and was doing it. Then I slept some more. I was sorry not to see another Moroccan city, but I loved my day in bed.
John’s just returned. He had a good day and I am happy for him to have gone by himself. But I would love to have seen the tree-climbing goats, and the herd of dromedaries!